A Georgian Christmas was very much all about parties, balls and family get-togethers. The Georgian Christmas season ran from December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night). On St Nicholas’ Day it was traditional for friends to exchange presents; this marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
Christmas Day was a national holiday, spent by the gentry in their country houses and estates. People went to church and returned to a celebratory Christmas dinner. Food played a very important part in a Georgian Christmas. Guests and parties meant that a tremendous amount of food had to be prepared, and dishes that could be prepared ahead of time and served cold were popular.
For Christmas dinner, there was always a turkey or goose, though venison was the meat of choice for the gentry. This was followed by Christmas pudding. In 1664 the Puritans banned it, calling it a ‘lewd custom’ and ‘unfit for God-fearing people’. Christmas Puddings were also called plum puddings because one of the main ingredients was dried plums or prunes.
In 1714, King George I was apparently served plum pudding as part of his first Christmas dinner as a newly crowned monarch, thus re-introducing it as a traditional part of Christmas dinner. Unfortunately there are no contemporary sources to confirm this, but it is a good story and led to his being nicknamed ‘the pudding king’.
Traditional decorations included holly and evergreens. The decoration of homes was not just for the gentry: poor families also brought greenery indoors to decorate their homes, but not until Christmas Eve. It was considered unlucky to bring greenery into the house before then. By the late 18th century, kissing boughs and balls were popular, usually made from holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary. These were often also decorated with spices, apples, oranges, candles or ribbons. In very religious households, the mistletoe was omitted.
The tradition of a Christmas tree in the house was a German custom and apparently brought to Court in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. So Sir Percy wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree!
A great blazing fire was the centerpiece of a family Christmas. The Yule log was chosen on Christmas Eve. It was wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home, to burn in the fireplace as long as possible through the Christmas season. The tradition was to keep back a piece of the Yule log to light the following year’s Yule log. Nowadays in most households the Yule log has been replaced by an edible chocolate variety!
The day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, was the day when people gave to charity and the gentry presented their servants and staff with their ‘Christmas Boxes’. This is why today St Stephen’s Day is called ‘Boxing Day’.
January 6th or Twelfth Night signalled the end of the Christmas season and was marked in the 18th and 19th centuries by a Twelfth Night party. Games such as ‘bob apple’ and ‘snapdragon’ were popular at these events, as well as more dancing, drinking and eating.
A popular drink at assemblies was the Wassail bowl. This was similar to punch or mulled wine, prepared from spiced and sweetened wine or brandy, and served in a large bowl garnished with apples.
Once Twelfth Night was over, all the decorations were taken down and the greenery burned, or the house risked bad luck. Even today, many people take down all their Christmas decorations on or before 6th January to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately the extended Christmas season was to disappear after the Regency period, brought to an end by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of the rural way of life that had existed for centuries. Employers needed workers to continue working throughout the festive period and so the ‘modern’ shortened Christmas period came into being.
Yorkshire was the home of the Christmas pie, a huge barn of pastry filled with a turkey stuffed with a goose, a fowl, a duck and a pigeon – all with bones removed and any gaps filled with pieces of hare and woodcock. This was the precursor of that recent craze for multi-bird roasts. However, our ancestors baked these birds in pastry, so that the fat released from the goose fried the dry turkey in the sealed pie-case, producing succulent meat. When the pie had cooled, clarified butter was poured through a hole in the lid to seal the meat in, ensuring that it would keep for months.
These huge pies were designed to be eaten cold and were frequently sent long distances as gifts. The crust was often embellished with pastry decorations.
The history of the mince pie
Mince pies originated in the 16th century or earlier. Though sweet, they usually contained meat, which tended to be overpowered by the strong flavours of the spices and preserved fruit, so was barely detectable. Unlike our simple modern round pies, they were made in a myriad of eccentric shapes and usually contained four or more spices. Many of the cookery books of the 17th and 18th centuries featured illustrated designs showing the latest fashions in mince pie shapes. These delightful little knot gardens of spicy mincemeat were arranged on a salver in a charming kaleidoscope pattern.
Two authentic early 18th-century punch recipes.
Take three pints of the best brandy, as much spring-water, a pint or better of the best lime-juice, a pound of double refined sugar. This punch is better than weaker punch, for it does not so easily affect the head, by reason of the large quantity of lime-juice more than common, and it is more grateful and comfortable to the stomach.
Punch for chambermaids
Take a quart of water, a quarter of a pint of Lime-juice; squeeze in also the juice of a Seville orange and a lemon; put in six ounces of fine sugar; strain all through a strainer, three times till it is very clear then put in a pint of brandy, and half a pint of white-wine.
A bill of fare for Christmas Day
A collar of brawn
Stewed broth of mutton with marrow bones
A grand sallet
A pottage of caponets
A breast of veal in stoffado
A boil’d partridge
A chine of beef, or sirloin roast
A jegote of mutton with anchove sauce
A made dish of sweetbread
A swan roast
A pasty of venison
A kid with a pudding in his belly
A steak pie
A hanch of vension, roasted
A turkey roast and stuck with cloves
A made dish of chickens in puff paste
Two bran geese roasted, one larded
Two large capons
The second course for the
Oranges and lemons
A young lamb or kid
Two couple of rabbits, two larded
A pig souc’t with tongues
Three ducks, one larded
Three pheasants, one larded
A swan pye
Three brace of partridge, three larded,
made dish in puff paste
Bolonia sausages, and anchovies, mushrooms, and cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish
Six eels, three larded
A gammon of Westphalia bacon
Ten plovers, five larded
A quince pye, or warden pie
Six woodcocks, three larded
A standing tart in puff paste, preserved
fruits, pippins, etc
A dish of larks
Six dried neats tongues
Powdered geese, jellies
Aren’t you glad you haven’t got to prepare that much food this Christmas!